Sunday, August 20, 2017

Life of an American Fireman

Life of an American Fireman; silent drama short, USA, 1903; D: Edwin S. Porter, S: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughan, James H. White

A fireman has a dream of a woman and a child in trouble. Later, an alarm goes on and several firefighters rush from a fire station to their carriages in order to go to a house on fire. The fireman breaks the window, enters the house on the first floor, and saves a woman and her child from the burning building by climbing with them down the ladder.

One of the movies from the early days of cinema, "Life of a Fireman" is also an example of an "exercise" in cinema, a time when film was a new medium and various directors and pioneers still had no ways of finding out how their stories should look like or how to achieve that, except through a long 'trial-and-error' process while making movies. Like most movies in the 1900s, this one is also "rudimentary", presented in static, long wide shots — except for an interesting, albeit rudimentary example of the cross-cutting technique: the scene of a bedroom burning is presented in an interior shot, showing the fireman entering through the window and saving the woman and the child by carrying them outside; and this scene is then repeated again in the exterior shot of the house. This is not quite an example of cross-cutting, since it is shown only once in the entire film, while it also seems more like an error since the action is repeated, instead of switching from one half of the scene to another. Still, some film scholars thus often cite it as helping in the progress of cinema techniques. The only other interesting moment is the scene where the fireman has a "dream bubble" of a woman in danger, while the rest is routine, standard, though still valuable from the perspective of cinema ontology.

Grade;++

Under the Skin

Under the Skin; experimental film, UK / USA, 2013; D: Jonathan Glazer, S: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Kevin McAlinden, Krystof Hádek

Somewhere in Scottland, (an alien in the form of (?)) a woman is driving a van on the streets at night, trying to pick up men. One man is attracted to her, she brings him to a desolate house and undresses. As he undresses as well, and walks towards her in the dark, he falls into a liquid - and his body is dissolved in it, leaving only his skin. Sometimes, the woman also walks on foot and browses several bars. One night, she picks up another man, who has a disfigured face and never had a girlfriend. He is also absorbed in the liquid in the house. However, after that, the woman leaves the van and escapes. She tries out a piece of cake, but it is disgusting to her. She meets a man, stays in his house and tries to have normal sex with him. She leaves again, stumbles upon a logger in the forest who tries to rape her, but only accidentally peels her skin away, revealing her black alien body. The logger then pours gasoline on the alien and sets her on fire.

Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" polarized the audience, since many were surprised to encounter a rare example of a pure experimental film featuring one of the most popular Hollywood stars of that time, Scarlett Johansson, who plays a nameless (alien) woman in a very vague, cryptic story that deliberately refuses to go anywhere particularly. Even though it is ostensibly a science-fiction movie, "Under the Skin" is highly allegorical and may be interpreted similarly like Polanski's "Repulsion", namely an exploration of a woman's genophobia, i.e. fear and disgust of sex. She seemingly picks up men and brings them to her desolate house, but they then fall into a liquid naked and are killed. This seems like a radical feminist revenge tale, except that all these men never did anything (on screen) to deserve this. Their demise is presented in peculiarly-hermetic-stylistic shots of the woman and the man seen in front of a completely black background, until he makes a few steps forwards towards her and sinks bellow into the unknown. One encounter makes a difference, though, and is highly interesting: when the woman picks up a 26-year old lad with a disfigured face, who claims to have never had a girlfriend. He is also ultimately killed, but this seems to trigger a change inside of her. Did she feel pity for the first time? Did she recognize the lad's loneliness and his wish to find someone to love, which she defiled? Was she in human form for so long until she started to feel human emotions and empathy as well? All these are interesting points, but are presented frustratingly cold and indifferent, only objectively following the woman wondering aimlessly in the last third, without preparing a point at the end. This "empty walk" and a lack of situations to identify with exacerbates the effort of the viewers to "decipher" the movie, yet it might please some more 'adventerous' cinema buffs keen to find something alternative in cinema.

Grade;++

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Time

Sigan; drama, South Korea / Japan, 2006; D: Kim Ki-duk, S: Ha Jung-woo, Seong Hyeon-a, Park Ji-Yeon

Seh-hee and her boyfriend Ji-woo have been in a romantic relationship for two years now. However, she is perplexed at him for staring at other girls from time to time, and thinks he might have gotten bored with her. Without any explanation, Se-hee leaves him and decides to have a plastic surgery that will change her face. 6 months later, Ji-woo meets a woman and starts a relationship with her. But he finds out it is actually Seh-hee with a new face. He then leaves her and undergoes a plastic surgery as well. A lonely Seh-hee tries to find him, but without success. She runs after a man she thinks might be Ji-woo, but the man runs away and gets killed by a truck on the street. Seh-hee then undergoes another plastic surgery.

"Time" is ofers Kim Ki-duk in "light" form, since the director does not raise to the occasion in this edition. Many of Ki-duk's stories can be basically summed up in five pages of a script, yet at occasions, he manages to justify prolonging them to feature length movies thanks to his (often Buddhist inspired) contemplation of spiritual beings living in a harsh, crude material world. Such is not quite the case with this film which, as the title reveals, contemplates about the transience and how a love couple copes with that: the girl thinks she might be getting old for her boyfriend, so she undergoes a facial plastic surgery, signalling a "rebirth" into a new person, in order to "rejuvenate" their relationship. However, since her "rebirth" is fake, her nirvana will also be fake. She expects happiness from things which are impermanent, and therefore cannot attain real happiness. There are some interesting philosophical thoughts presented subtly throughout the story (if her boyfriend changes his face during the surgery, and is a complete stranger afterward, is he basically "dead" anyway?) wrapped up in the interesting final image which speaks about time that "floods" all beings, and the highlight is the Baemikkumi Sculpture Park (including a sculpture of two giant hands with fingers that allow people to climb up on them like stairs), yet the movie seems overlong and overstretched, with too much banal dialogues, all of which start exhausting the viewers concentration, revealing that he should have stopped the story an hour into the film, instead of continuing it artificially for another half an hour of empty walk.

Grade;++

Monday, August 14, 2017

Round the Bend

Round the Bend; comedy series, UK, 1988; D: John Henderson, S: Jon Glover, Jonathan Kydd, Philip Pope, Kate Robbins 

Doc Croc is the host of an underground sewage TV show, using his associates - Vincent and other rats; David Colemole, the sports commentator; John Potato's newsround - to run the program. They broadcast several cartoons for the viewers, among them "Wee-Man", "Loud Lucy", "Pzycho the Magnificent", "Spambo", "Ricky" and others.

Independently produced "Round the Bend" was briefly shown in the UK during its premiere in the late 80s and after that disappeared in a "bunker", never even receiving a DVD release, thus quickly affirming unbelievable cult reputation as a "lost treasure". Even from today's perspective, it is still a remarkably fresh TV show consisting out of a live action (puppets) and animated (short cartoon clips) segment that form a blend of sheer delight. "Round the Bend" is one of the rare examples of a comedy show that is both unbelievably grotesque-bizarre and yet innocent, benign, harmless and childish at the same time: even though not all jokes work (the parody "False Teeth From Beyond the Stars" looks particularly dated and unfunny, for instance), many of its concoctions conquer with an incredible wit, ingenuity and comic inspiration.

For instance, one cartoon clip is called "Loud Lucy" and features an eponymous 10-year old girl who always talks annoyingly loud. One episode has Lucy in the church commenting at the people around her out loud, from her cousin who has acne ("Why does cousin Kevin smell so much?! Is it because his spots keep buuursting, mom?!") up to the bride ("Gosh, she looks even uglier than you said, mom!"). Many other cartoons are spoofs of numerous popular animated shows, from "He-Man" ("Wee-Man", featuring the hero who wears a diaper), through "Care Bears" ("Couldn't-Care-Less-Bears", featuring bears who fart, bathe in mud or outright pick their nose) up to "Batman" ("Botman", featuring the hero who has a giant butt, yet when he only puts away his mask, nobody can recognize his distinguished rear), very often ending in hilariously exaggerated satire. The highlight is arguably a howlingly funny animated parody on Little Red Riding Hood, which reaches cosmic heights of hilarity ("What snaggly, yellow teeth you got... And what bad breath you got... And what hairy legs you got...", says Riding Hood, until the old lady warns her that she in the wrong house again, and stands up from bed to shoot at the girl). The ratio of humor between the live action and animated segment is 1:3, making the Doc Croc segment sometimes irrelevant, yet it is still a worthy example of children's satire that also appeals to grown ups as well.

Grade;++

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lovefilm

Szerelmesfilm; drama / romance, Hungary, 1970; D: István Szabó, S: András Bálint, Judit Halász, Edit Kelemen, András Szamosfalvi, Flóra Kádár

Jancsi, a man in his 30s, finally gets the permission to travel from Budapest to Paris to see Kata, whom he hasn't seen for years. During his train trip, he remembers their childhood: during World War II, his father died and Kata teased him for that, but he could not be angry at her. They witnessed hunger and how their neighbor was killed. Kata and Jancsi became friends, but as students, when he tried to kiss her, she refused. Later on, they still became lovers. However, in '56, the Hungarian Revolution marked another crisis, and Kata was among the many thousands of refugees who fled to the West. Back in present, Jancsi meets Kata and they spend a couple of romantic days in her apartment. They also travel to the sea. However, Jancsi departs back to Budapest. He tries to stay, but feels like a stranger in Paris. He marries another woman in Budapest, Jutka, and recieves a letter from Kata, who said that she got married to an Englishman in Paris.

Istvan Szabo's 3rd feature length film is a melancholic, tragic and gentle elegy of a failed romance of a young couple, who in the end lament about their "rotten childhood" during World War II and the '56 Hungarian Revolution, and thus also symbolically represent the lost generation of that failed era, whose lives were ruined. Similarly like Fellini's "Amarcord", "Lovefilm" also has a 'stream-of-consciousness' narrative, structured like a vague recollection of childhood memories of the protagonist, except that Szabo's movie is far more bleak and sad, with only a couple of minuscule moments of humor that manage to liven up the mood (in one example, Jancsi remembers how he and Kata, when they were kids, planned to dissect a dead fish, but wanted to make sure it is dead so they decided to electrocute it with wires from the doorbell - but only caused a power outage in the whole street). There is some undermining tragedy in Jancsi and Kata who are surrounded by war and turmoil, but who insist on trying to live their fragile lives normally, through snow sledding or falling in love, trying to make "the best days of their lives" during the worst times. This makes even their romantic reunion in Paris bitter, since they became citizens of two separate worlds in the time of being apart. However, at a running time of 120 minutes, the movie is slightly overlong and exhaustive, lacking a certain ingenuity or inventiveness to truly cover up for the slightly routine episodes here and there, which could have been presented in a far more compact way.

Grade;++

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone; drama, USA, 2010; D: Debra Granik, S: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser

Ree (17) lives with a poor family in the Ozarks: she has a sick mother and thus has to take care of her younger brother (12) and sister (6). Her family in is trouble: Ree's dad, previously arrested for cooking "Meth", has disappeared for weeks, and unless he shows up at the court hearing, her family is going to lose their home that was set up as the bail bond. Ree thus decides to find her dad and travels from house to house, including her uncle Teardrop, but to no avail. Finally, after a lot of trouble, some women bring Ree to a lake where she finds her father dead. They cut of the hands of the corpse from the lake to serve as proof that he is indeed dead. This is sufficient for the court to decide not to evict Ree's family.

Despite critical acclaim, this is a routine social drama, a movie genre that is a dime a dozen. "Winter's Bone" presents a story in which the heroine, Ree, goes from door to door to search for her missing father. The thing is - why should anyone care? The characters, events and situations are all standard, conventional, lifeless, humorless and bland. The whole movie is, unfortunately, completely unmemorable. So unmemorable that, in two-three years, the viewers will probably not be able to remember any scene, situation or dialogue from it. It is not a good sign when the only thing you might remember about a certain film is Ree teaching her younger brother how to skin an animal and removes its intestine. The dialogues all unravel like a typical, everyday writing on "autopilot", with actors reciting long and ponderous lines that are obvious and redundant. That may have been the intention, but it was a wrong intention: if the movie is boring, why make it? If it does not stand out at all, why bother? If it is mundane, why should it be considered special, anyway? It may be realistic, but is makes for a very unexciting watch. And then the finale just shows up and the movie just ends there, without any conclusion. It is a solid movie, yet one wishes that the authors inserted just a tiny bit ingenuity, energy, creativity or life in it, something that would offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience than this.

Grade;+

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Neighbors

Neighbors; comedy, USA, 1981; D: John G. Avildsen, S: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Walker, Lauren-Marie Taylor, Tim Kazurinsky

Earl is a middle-aged man living with his wife Enid in a suburban home. One night, neighbors move to a house next door and introduce themselves: Vic and Ramona. Earl is immediately annoyed by Vic who borrowed his car and 32$ to buy a dinner in the city, only to keep the money and hastily prepare spaghetti in his own house. Ramona constantly pretends to seduce Earl, only to always betray and trick him. Further problems arise when Earl's teenage daughter Elaine shows up. The next morning, Vic accidentally burns his own house with a small airplane. When Enid and Elaine leave, Earl decides to escape into the unknown from his life together with Vic and Ramona in the car.

Comedian John Belushi appeared in only eight films in his entire career, before his much too early death, four of which involved a collaboration with his friend Dan Aykroyd. And while some hoped that their teaming up would again result in a phenomenal comedy such as "The Blues Brothers" or "The Rutles", their final film was the disappointing mess "Neighbors". It is peculiar how a film that starts off with such a stimulating and good opening can exhaust all its potentials and sink into juvenile buffoonery so fast. The first 40 minutes of this "annoying friends that won't go away" flick are comedy gold: director John G. Avildsen shows a good sense for comic timing thanks to observational humor or measured comic exaggerations, from the tantalizing scene where the coiled Earl hears a doorbell and opens the door when he spots the attractive Ramona in front of his entrance (equipped with almost cartoonish music) up to his interaction with the extroverted Vic who borrows his car and 32$ under the pretext that he will "buy him dinner" in the city (there is a deliciously long sequence of Earl sneaking off into the night to peak at his neighbor's window, only to spot Vic how he parked the car behind the house, kept the money and lazily just prepared spaghetti in his kitchen, nonchalantly picking up pasta that fell on the floor).

Unfortunately, 40 minutes into the film, and there is nothing more to see since "Neighbors" completely lost all of its good ideas for the rest of the running time. The remainder is only assembled out of crude, cheap or lame attempts at jokes, all of which backfire. In one sequence, Vic, wearing some diving mask, shoots at Earl in his back yard, but then recognizes him, invites him for some coffee, mentions his daughter's sex life, and then they both kick each other in the crotch. Why waste so much time on such a long, elaborated and pointless sequence that leads nowhere? In another, Earl's teenage daughter presents her edible panties and gives them to Vic to eat them. Again, a pointless scene. Even more problematic, the character's motivations change to complete opposite without explanations: throughout the film, Earl wants to get rid of Vic and Ramona, only to in the end invite them to stay and even join them on their trip and escape from his house. Why? Why would Earl suddenly switch his hate from Vic to his wife? All of this is left unexplained, leaving an uneven taste in the viewers' mouth. "Neighbors" would have worked as a short that ends after 40 minutes, because it forcefully tries to extend the thin storyline into a feature, and it shows. It was obvious someone fiddled with the script by the talented Larry Galbert, since the story seems as if someone else wrote the whole last two thirds by inserting crazy concoctions, completely ignoring the first point, though Belushi shows his comic talent as the coiled Earl in the opening act, and the movie should be seen only for this intro alone.

Grade;+

Monday, August 7, 2017

Re-Animator

Re-Animator; horror, USA, 1985; D: Stuart Gordon, S: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton

Medical student Dan Cain has a relationship with Meg, the daughter of the dean of the medical school, Dr. Halsey. Dan accepts the eccentric Herbert West, a new student, as his lodger. However, Cain finds out that West is performing an experiment with a green liquid that manages to bring dead back among the living. Unfortunately, the re-animated corpses are all mindless zombies who attack people, and Dr. Halsey is one of their victims. When his professor, Hill, finds out about the invention, he wants to steal it, so West decapitates him, but revives both Hill's severed head and body. Hill escapes and captures Barbara in a morgue. West injects too much liquid into Hill's body, causing it to mutate and melt away: its intestine attacks West. Barbara is killed, so Cain inject her with liquid, reviving her.

Even though it gained cult status, Stuart Gordon's horror grotesque is a fairly routine and standard film, settling to seize more attention of the viewers with gore, violence, blood and disgust than with intelligence, sophistication or some ingenuity. There isn't much to see: the first third is a soap opera, the last third just a standard cheap scare. "Re-Animator" has two great scenes of a visual style: the one is when West shuts the door while the camera follows its movement and swings to the left, towards Cain and Barbara; the second is when Barbara enters the hallway of the morgue, while the camera drives away from her. Unfortunately, that is basically it, since the jokes all backfire or seem just plain forced (one is the grotesque sequence of the decapitated head of Dr. Hill ordering his body to get something, but its body constantly stumbles upon something) whereas the finale falls too often into trash (the sequence of the body tying up Barbara naked to the table, only to hold Dr. Hill's decapitated head that wants to lick her between the legs; a mutated body whose intestines attack West). The critics mostly complimented Gordon for managing to achieve such good effects despite his limited budget, yet the story is an ill-conceived mess whose blend of horror and comedy are uneven.

Grade;+

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Boys Town

Boys Town; drama, USA, 1938; D: Norman Taurog, S: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull, Frankie Thomas, Bobs Watson


Father Flanagan visits a convict in jail who is sentenced to a death penalty. Before his execution, the man blames the state for not being there to help him when he was an orphan and had to become a criminal to survive. This deeply affects Flanagan who decides to found an orphanage for juvenile delinquents, named "Boys Town". He gets a mortgage and establishes a place that takes care of 200 children, hoping to correct them all so that they can leave as honest citizens when they turn 18. However, a new kid, the 14-year old Whitey Marsh, strains the community by rudely acting exclusive. When a kid, Pee Wee, is injured by a car for trying to prevent him from leaving "Boys Town", Whitey feels remorse. He meets his criminal brother, Joe, who robs a bank. In order to escape being charged himself, Whitey tries to beg Joe to give himself in. Flanagan and the boys storm the hideout and arrest Joe. Whitey returns to "Boys Town" and gets elected as the president there.

"Boys Town" stayed remembered for securing Spencer Tracy his second Oscar for best actor, after "Captains Courageous" from the year before, making him the first actor in history to win that award twice in a row. Peculiarly, both films share the same theme: a problematic kid who is reformed thanks to a wise mentor. It is basically a tale as old as time — a heartless person undergoes a colossal change and finds his humanity at the end — yet still works here thanks to the classic style from the "Golden age of Hollywood" where characters and emotions were the highlight, not various technical gimmicks. Unobtrusive, unassuming, honest, touching and remarkably effective despite its conventional narrative, "Boys Town" is a prime example of a movie with class from that era, a one that also contemplates about some problems in society at the same time, without being preachy: the opening is remarkable for clearly establishing why Father Flanagan decided to form the eponymous orphanage after he hears how a convict, sentenced to death, had no other means to survive as an orphan kid than to turn to crime. This hit the nerve of the viewers, who were still recovering from the poverty of the "Great Depression" just a few years before.

Upon seeing so many angry, aimless orphaned kids on the streets who fight and destroy private property, Father Flanagan decides to save them from such social determinism, claiming "These boys were cheated on for a chance to live a decent life" and this makes for an engaged storyline. He is a truly fascinating character, noble, dignified, yet also complex and practical, while Tracy plays him wonderfully and compassionately. Mickey Rooney almost surpasses him, however, in the fantastic role of the tough, problematic kid Whitey. One of the funniest moments in the film arrives when Whitey is reluctantly brought to Boys Town and is annoyed by the innocent, naive 8-year old mascot of the refuge, Pee Wee, who constantly follows him. Pee Wee is carried at one point by another kid 'piggyback' style, and then turns and asks: "Why don't you carry me, Whitey?" who replies sarcastically: "No, I might drop you!" Rooney gives a 'tour-de-force' performance, and even though he was praised by the critics, he was not nominated for any award for this film. The highlight of the film is definitely the dialogue between Flanagan and a wounded Whitey near the end, which displays some pure humanity and emotions rarely seen in modern cinema: "I've always said that there is no such thing as a 'bad boy' in this world. You're the only boy in all these years who never had a heart somewhere, I could not reach somehow, sometime." It is a beautiful moment, a sequence with an aura, a one that amends all complaints and elevates it to heights for a brief moment despite some previous omissions.

Grade;+++

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Last Men in Aleppo

Last Men in Aleppo; documentary, Syria / Denmark, 2017; D: Firas Fayyad, S: Khaled Omar Harrah

Aleppo. The Syrian war rages on while the city is constantly under siege. In 2016, the Syrian government launches another offensive against the rebels, while the civilians are caught in the middle. Khaled, a father of two children, is a volunteer for the White Helmets, an emergency organization that saves wounded people under the rubble. He runs in ambulance from apartment to apartment, but the casualties just keep mounting. He contemplates fleeing, but it is already to late. In the end, Khaled dies in bombardment while trying to save a family.

More than being a documentary, "Last Men in Aleppo" is a horror film. But even more than being a horror film, it is a monument to life and humanity of its protagonist, Khaled Omar Harrah, who sacrificed his life trying to save others, making this a chronicle of his last days. The battle of Aleppo received little attention in the media in the West, and thus this film by Firas Fayyad gives a rare, brave glimpse inside hell on Earth: it is brutal, depressive, sad and unbearable, but it forces the viewers to think. It makes not only for a strange chronicle of how something like this can happen in the civilized world of the 21st century, but is also a document to war crimes committed by those who were pounding these people to death: the Syrian government and Goreshist Russia. The film shows a clip of Khaled saving a living baby buried under a tone of destroyed walls, through which he became famous, but also follows him on his daily drive to fresh rubble, trying to save other wounded people under the rubble. It is like watching the modern day Sisyphus: no matter how many he saves, war planes strike and kill some more. It just goes on and on. Several scenes illustrate the bleak, dark situation these people are in: a war plane dropping forbidden white phosphorus that glows in night or cluster bombs that explode throughout entire neighborhoods. A cat crawls under and enters a house, trying to find safety, but its lower legs are almost crippled. Khaled buys some living fish on the market, thinking it can be used as food in case hunger breaks out due to siege. The film does not take any side in the war. It just follows and objectively shows things how they were in Aleppo. It is full of contrasts: on one side, we have heroes, the White Helmets, who are seen and who save the people, and on the other we have villains who are hiding, cowardly killing from far away. It also contemplates about some bigger issues in life, such as helplessness and frailness of good among the people. This film is a tough watch. It is like watching people being destroyed through a meat grinder for an hour and a half. But is refuses to turn away, through which it implores the viewers to think about the value of life and the importance of humanity in dark times.

Grade;+++